Like polio and leprosy, developed countries have long since tamed tuberculosis. But even now, other parts of the world continue to struggle against the disease, with nearly all (98 percent) of TB’s 1.7 million worldwide deaths occurring in developing countries. TB’s high comorbidity with HIV infections has recently added another level of urgency to efforts to find a faster, less expensive cure.
And for the first time in over 40 years, promising new drug candidates have appeared on the R&D scene. The candidates are designed to be effective not only against not regular TB, but also against multidrug-resistant (MDR) and extensively drug-resistant (XDR) strains of the disease, as well as those co-occurring with HIV. The drugs are expected to reduce treatment time to two months, as opposed to the current (40-year-old) six-month regimen for regular infections. Current courses for MDR are even longer, and just 1 percent of patients get the proper treatment.
But activist organization Treatment Action Group puts a $2 billion per year price tag on the R&D needed to bring these drugs through the pipeline, and current funding is well below that—75 percent below, according to Médicins Sans Frontières.
New vaccines, drugs, and diagnostics could reduce TB’s global infection rate by 71 percent by 2050. That may seem a long way away, but according to TB Alliance communications manager Joanna Breitstein, that’s the best case scenario. The current rate of reduction for the disease is just 1 percent per year, and without advances in technology and drugs for MDR TB, the rate is likely to stay the same. That’s even grimmer news when you take into account population growth: reduction becomes negligible.
On the plus side, there was a general increase of almost 100 percent in public financing of health worldwide, according to an April article in The Lancet. The exception? Sub-Saharan Africa, where government spending actually decreased. The region has an extraordinarily high infection rate, partially due to the high incidence of HIV/AIDS in the population.